One of the NCAA's leaders in career passing yardage found himself in an unusual position last spring. He was third on the depth chart at New Mexico, one of the nation's worst major-college football teams.
Jeremy Leach, a former Granada Hills High standout, had lost his starting position for the final two games of the 1990 season, but still he was stunned.
"It was different for me," Leach said this week by phone from Albuquerque. "Because ever since I played, I was the guy starting.
"It was definitely a test for me. People thought I would transfer, but I don't quit things. I've done so much here and all of a sudden, I'm No. 3. I couldn't understand it. I figured I'd stick it out with the team I played my career with."
Leach, whose total of 8,638 passing yards is 16th best in NCAA history, resolved to regain his starting job in summer drills. But although Leach thought he outplayed Marcus Goodloe, he started this season as Goodloe's backup.
After Goodloe threw two touchdowns and two interceptions in New Mexico's opener against Texas El Paso, a 35-19 loss, Leach replaced him and completed seven of 12 passes for 111 yards.
The following week against Texas Christian, Goodloe threw interceptions in the Lobos' first two series. Leach was inserted in the lineup and passed for 113 yards (he had one interception) before third-string quarterback Stoney Case came in to mop up in a 60-7 loss.
Leach, a senior, made his first start of the season Saturday at Hawaii and he responded by passing for 427 yards, but he also threw three interceptions. The Lobos fell, 35-13, to a team whose rushing leader was a high school teammate of Leach, Jamal Farmer.
As schoolboys, Leach and Farmer helped Granada Hills win the 1987 City Section 4-A Division title with a stunning upset of Carson, which entered the game ranked second in the nation.
Four times, New Mexico moved inside the Hawaii 20 and came up with nothing; twice, the Lobos missed field goals and twice Leach's passes were intercepted.
Interceptions have been Leach's Achilles' heel.
"Some of it has to do with starting as a true freshman," said Leach, who has thrown 55 interceptions in his career.
"And then my junior year, I don't know what happened. We struggled, and I hurried to get the ball off before being sacked."
As stunning as the number of Leach's interceptions is the number of times Leach has been sacked--125. And that does not include the times he has been hurried or hit as he released the ball.
"I've learned to take it," Leach said. "It was rough, especially that first year. I got beat up."
This season, Leach is adjusting to the run-and-shoot offense installed by Coach Mike Sheppard, a former Cal Lutheran wide receiver and graduate assistant coach and also a former head coach at Cal State Long Beach.
"I like it a lot," Leach said. "It's not a lot of running. People think run, but really it is a passing offense."
Leach takes five steps back to pass--the same number he took in the pro-style offense that New Mexico employed before switching to the run-and-shoot--but he rolls out a bit, setting up a yard or two wider than he is accustomed.
The Lobos have gone 6-33 since his arrival in Albuquerque, so Leach does not have much to smile about. He does, however, have a chance to earn a prominent place in the NCAA record book.
By averaging 250 yards over the next nine games, Leach could take over the No. 3 slot on the NCAA's all-time passing list, surpassing Doug Flutie, who threw for 10,579 yards for Boston College from 1981-84.
at New Mexico
Yr Att Comp Yds Pct TD Int 1988 323 165 1,986 .511 10 15 1989 511 282 3,573 .552 22 20 1990 380 180 2,428 .474 12 16 1991 89 48 651 .539 1 4 Tot 1303 675 8,638 .518 45 55
1991 statistics are for three games.
Career passing yardage total is the 16th best in NCAA history.